Novel Basics: Keeping a Journal

A Million Words

One of my former colleagues used to tell his writing students that, in order to become writers, they had to produce and throw away a million words.

That sounds daunting, doesn’t it?

Another piece of advice goes, write a page a day and in a year you could write a novel. In these terms and calculating that each page contains about two hundred and fifty words, you need nearly eleven years to produce a million words.

But why don’t we look at the math a little differently?

Let’s say that you decide to use journaling to practice the craft of writing. Sprint writing, that is, non-stop writing done for a short while, can produce about two hundred and fifty words in a typical ten-minute session. Twenty minutes a day of journaling would produce five hundred words which means you could crank out your million words in five and a half years. Forty minutes a day would get you your expendable million words in two and three-quarters years.

On the other hand, twenty to forty minutes a day practicing an art form you aspire to master is very little time, especially compared to the work put in by a budding pianist who probably practices a minimum of an hour a day or a dancer who may put in several hours a day. And twenty to forty minutes of practice a day is far below the standard eight-hour work day.

So just for the sake of argument, let’s boost our writing practice to an hour a day. (And do notice that unlike the dancer who must frame the practice session with a warm up and cool down, the future writer can practice writing in several short sessions every day.) If you write an hour a day, you will produce about 1,500 words a day which translates into 667 days or 1.8 years. Compared to the other arts we’ve mentioned, this is a very brief apprenticeship.

And chances are you will notice what I noticed after less than a year of journal-keeping: that it primes the pump for other writing like stories, poems, and articles that you won’t have to throw away because the words you’ve written on the way to your million have given you fresh ideas and fluency.

So speaking as a multi-millionaire of throwaway words, I advise you to start writing–now.

“A Million Words” received a Special Honorable Mention in the filler category of a ByLine Magazine writing contest in 1999. It was later published in Fiction Writers Guidelines.

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For Christmas 1984, a dear friend gave me the beautiful book shown in front of several others in the photo. On January 1, 1985, I started filling its lined pages. Before the end of March, I’d filled every page, so I got another notebook about the same size though not nearly as nice. After I’d filled that one, I bought another and starting filling it, too. I’ve forgotten exactly how many I’d filled by the end of ’85. I can tell you that I drafted two novels in ’86: one in the spring semester while teaching a full load at one of the top community colleges in the United States and the other during a sabbatical leave in the fall.

Definitely I credit my journal-keeping habit for priming the pump for those two novels and many of the other pieces of writing I’ve done in the thirty-five years since then. My current journal is Book # 140. Except for possibly missing five days, I have literally written a journal entry every day of my life in the thirty-five years since I started. Some days my entries are very bare bones, little more than the date and a very brief weather report, especially when I’m working on a long project like a novel. But some days I go on and on.

Over all those years of journal keeping I’ve found that it has help me develop my writer’s voice and also rather organically grows other pieces of writing. For example, several years ago, I found myself recording snippets of observations of crows in my neighborhood on the pages of my journal. And eventually they coalesced into one of my more popular pieces, “Crow Lessons.”

Currently, I’m struggling with finding details for my current WiP, set in Kansas City in April 1901. With previous novels and stories in this series, I’ve done research in The Kansas City Star archives, especially details about what the weather actually was on a particular day. But the newspaper has changed the mode of access to those files and I haven’t been able to get in. Now I suspect that the newspaper has lots more important things to do than guide an indie author to the right link.

But then the other day, quite dreary with thunder and freezing rain falling, as I was doing my journal entry, I had a Eureka moment. I could use the weather in Kansas City in early April 2020 for two and half weeks later in April 1901 given the changes brought by climate change. And suddenly, I saw that male cardinal, bright red against the small, tender leaves of the hedge around my patio, that chirped in apparent dismay as something my character could see. Oh yeah and a neighbor’s daffodils and . . .

Thus is the magic of your journal that it helps you be a writer in small ways and big every day of your life. So if you don’t keep a journal, start one ASAP. (You can use the sprint writing method to explore the setting of your novel.)

Please come back tomorrow for Card # 9, one of my personal favorites.

Novel Basics: Warming Up

A Writing Warmup

Long ago in the ‘70’s in graduate school at the Ohio State University, I learned a warm-up writing technique that I used on the first day of every college writing class, no matter what kind, for the next thirty-five years of my writing career. Indeed, I used it in the sample class I taught my future colleagues who later told me cinched the deal since it was a leading edge, process-oriented writing method.

So what is it? It’s called sprint or speed writing, and it’s perfect for quieting that ump or inner critic that might be plaguing you.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Get something to write on and something to write with. Pencil and paper are fine or you can do it on your laptop.

2. Also get a timer. The kitchen timer works fine or you can set the timer on your phone. Set it for a short amount of time, 5 minutes minimum, 10 minutes tops.

3. You need something to write about. My personal classroom favorite – indeed the one that got me the college teaching job I had for twenty-five years: Something that really makes you mad.

4. Here’s the basic rule for the exercise: Once you start writing, don’t stop. Don’t worry about spelling or correct usage. If you can’t think of a name, leave a blank. If you get stuck, repeat the word you’re stuck on until you think of something else to put on the page. Especially do not worry if you go off on a tangent from the topic you started with because you might discover what you really want to write about.

5. Here’s the topic for this exercise: Something that makes you really mad.

6. Ready. Set. Go.

7. When the time is up, finish the thought you’re working on, put your pencil down or lift your hands from the keyboard. You might want to massage your hands as you think about what you just wrote, especially any surprises you noticed about what you wrote or how long it took to produce the number of lines you did.

Congratulations. You’ve just practiced sprint writing. I use this method a lot and for all sorts of writing including fiction and creative nonfiction.

Novel Basics: Imp v. Ump

Some Reflections on the Creative Process, not Limited to Writing

Imp v. Ump

Imp: I wrote a story. I wrote a story. It’s so much fun. The characters were really talking to each other. I love them and the end is super great.
Ump: Let me take a look at it.
Imp: Sure . . .
Ump: Well, let’s see. You left out a word on the first page.
Imp: Okay . . .
Ump: And on page three you put an apostrophe in its when you shouldn’t have.
Imp: Are you sure?
Ump: Of course, I’m sure. And on page five . . . Imp? Imp? Where’d you go?

Imp? Ump? What are you talking about now? you might ask.

It goes back to the left-brain, right-brain theory of how our mental processes work and the attachment of the label left-brained to someone who tends to be logical and critical and right-brained to someone who tends to be creative and imaginative. I call the former voice in my head my ump and the latter voice my imp.

Definition of ump: the critic, the perfectionist, the logician who lives on the left side of your head, the English teacher of everybody’s nightmares who says, “If you don’t get this absolutely perfect the first time through, you might as well not start at all.”

Definition of imp: the energy, the source, the little kid who lives on the right side of your brain, jumps up and down, waves an imaginary hand to get your attention, and says, “I got an idea. I got an idea.”

In essence, writing isn’t a left-brained activity. It isn’t solely a right-brained activity either. It’s a whole-brained process. To write anything including a novel–maybe especially a novel–you need both your ump and your imp.

But if you let your ump shoot its mouth off too early in the process, you will completely demoralize your imp. And it will quit talking to you altogether and curl up into a small, tight fetal ball.

So when your ump starts saying to you, “Wait! Wait! That’s not exactly the word you need”; or “Is that the correct there, their, they’re?”; or “Why bother? It will never sell”; just say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, button it, Ump. You’ll get your chance later.” And then, coax your imp to come out and play.

We are not after perfection here. We’re looking for the basics you need to know about your novel before you start to write it, or most of the basics anyway. For example, you might not come up with all the major characters the first time through your cards. Probably you won’t know all of the characters’ names. You might not answer all the questions. It’s not as if you have to show your work to anybody. So relax and enjoy the process.

Telling your ump to cool it goes for drawing the images on your cards, too, if you decide to do them at all. Some of the images on my deck of cards are really messy. And I simply don’t care. At this point, you shouldn’t either.

Join me tomorrow when we’ll talk a bit more about the people of your book.

Novel Basics: Summing Up About Characters

You’ve probably noticed that so far we’ve mostly talked about the characters, the people of the book you’ll write. And maybe you’ve already noticed that your characters are fueling ideas for your novel. But before we move on to issues of plot, that is, driving the plot car to the end point of your journey or walking the plot tight rope, I’d like to point out a few more things about characters.

I’m a fan of mystery fiction, and mostly that’s what I read with a smattering of science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction from time to time. So the first point about characters relates to mysteries in particular, but really you can do this with the principal characters of any novel.

1) Everybody has a secret.

2) A character can play two roles at once. This happens very often when the narrator tells his own story in first person. Or the ally is the narrator as in The Great Gatsby. But it can happen in other ways as well. Perhaps the ally also serves to start the plot by coming to the protagonist for help.

3) Any character can play a different role from the one she started out as. For instance, in mysteries, the protagonist/narrator can turn out to be the killer. An apparent antagonist/suspect can turn out to be an ally. An ally, that is, the confidant or sidekick, can turn out to be the killer. The character that gets the plot rolling can turn out to be the killer. (I just love it when a skillful writer fools me. Don’t you?)

4) Sometimes you need more than one of any type of character. In a novel, quite a few characters can pose a threat to the protagonist accomplishing her goal. In Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only, for instance, a crime boss sends a couple of his goons to pick up Vic, the tough female private eye. In my own January Jinx, the first novel in my Calendar Mystery series, the protagonist, Minty Wilcox wants to find a suitable job in old Kansas City. But not only does the major antagonist interfere with her reaching her goal, but so does Minty’s mother who views her daughter’s wish to help with household finances as a sign of her own failure to manage them.

5) If you have trouble finding directions for where your plot car could go, ask your characters. They might surprise you with their inventive suggestions. Sometimes a character might suggest something outrageous. For instance, when I was drafting my second novel, set in a dystopian future, the antagonist wanted to kill the protagonist very early, but I couldn’t let that happen of course. But the antagonist’s attempts to kill the protagonist made for some really dandy plot developments.

Coming tomorrow . . . Previously, I’ve done the Novel Basics class live in about 90 to 120 minutes with a bunch of people busily creating their personalized packs of cards as we go along. But really right now, many of us have the time to explore some of the aspects of our novels. So tomorrow I’ll give you some tips and suggestions for brainstorming fiction more generally and characters specifically. See you then.

 

 

Novel Basics Cards 6 & 7

Today we have cards for other important two characters in your novel . . .

Card # 6

The Match

The Match Card asks the question,

“Who fires up the plot car?”

 I know. I know. This is a bit of a mixed metaphor because you wouldn’t really want to burn up a car. Still, I think the image of the match works well to get at the nature of another essential character that you’ll need–someone who appears near the start of your novel to get the plot going. Once you’re onto this sort of character, you’ll see lots of them in the novels you read.

For example, a noir mystery novel often starts with some blonde, wearing a tight black suit and stilettos, swaying into the tough private eye’s office to hire him to find out who murdered the victim or where her sister has gone. Several of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels start with potential clients–though not usually sexy blondes–entering his office.

Sue Grafton has a woman wrongfully imprisoned for murdering her husband come to Kinsey Millhone to discover the true killer at the start of A Is for Alibi.

Early in Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only, the first V. I. Warshawski mystery, the private investigator heads to her office at night through steamy Chicago to meet a potential client who refused to give his name to her answering service. But she needs to pay her bills, so she goes to her office, and thus she meets a man who wants her to find his son’s missing girlfriend.

I’ve given examples from mystery fiction, but that’s not to say writers of other sorts of fiction don’t have this sort of character, too. For instance, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit begins with the wizard Gandalf arriving in town and carrying Bilbo Baggins off on an adventure.

Fiver’s horrid dream of death and destruction to the warren sets in motion the long, epic journey of the rabbits in Richard Adams’ Watership Down.

Wanting husbands for her daughters, Mrs. Bennet gets the plot of Pride and Prejudice going by sending her husband to call on the eligible and rich bachelor Mr. Bingley who has rented an estate nearby.

Card # 7

The Mouth

The Mouth Card asks the question,

“Who tells the story?”

Novelists have many options for narrators for their books and exactly how those narrators will present the narratives. I’ll give you some common choices. I’ll also note that sometimes, once you get into your novel, you might change your mind from what you write down on your card initially and what you later decide might be a better choice. The common terms for these choices are viewpoint, point of view or perspective.

By far the most common choice of point of view is first person from the perspective of the protagonist, that is, the guy or gal in the driver’s seat of the plot car. “That day when I saw this dame come in my office door, I said to myself, ‘Mike Hammer, you know she’s trouble. Gorgeous, but trouble.’”

But sometimes the first person narrator who tells the story in his own voice isn’t the protagonist, but the second most important character in the work, the ally. This can be due to a very practical reason: the protagonist dies before the end of the novel. That’s one reason why Chief Broom tells McMurphy’s story in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That’s why Nick Carraway tells Gatsby’s story and Ishmael tells Captain Ahab’s. “And I alone remain to tell the tale . . .”

(Believe me when I tell you that few things annoy a reader more than getting to the end of a novel and finding out the person telling the story has been dead the whole time.)

Narrators can be innocent and say more than they understand, at least in the early pages of the novel, like Maisie in Henry James’ What Maisie Knew, for example. Ishmael of Moby Dick is sort of an innocent, too.

A narrator can be reliable like Nick Carraway. Or a narrator can be unreliable, like drunken, deceitful Rachel Watson, The Girl on the Train, in Paula Hawkins’ best-selling psychological thriller.

Speaking of that book, it’s told in first person from three women’s points of view: Rachel, Anna and Megan. If you’re an experienced novelist and want to use multiple first person viewpoint, I say go for it. If this will be your first novel, I’d say save this choice until your later books and keep this one simple.

Another very common choice is third person narration limited to the perspective of the protagonist. All of January Jinx, my first Calendar Mystery, and most of the second, Fatal February, stick to my protagonist’s point of view in third person. One advantage of this sort of viewpoint is that it gives some distance for the reader on the action. It can do the same for you the novelist, too.

You might consider using an omniscient viewpoint, a popular choice in 19th century novels. That’s when the narrator is some sort of godlike, all-knowing creature who looks down at the characters in the book. An early and famous example of this sort of point of view is Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in which the narrator sometimes says things like “So what do you think of Becky Sharp now, dear reader?” Occasionally omniscient viewpoint cropped up in twentieth-century novels and even twenty-first century novels like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.

But these days, most novelists stick to a third person perspective that’s limited to a couple of characters, the young woman and her potential lover in a categorical romance, for instance, or no more than four or five even in a huge book like Stephen King’s 800+ page American epic The Stand.

A word of caution about shifting from first to third person . . . In T Is for Trespass, Sue Grafton shifted back and forth from the third person viewpoint of the antagonist and the first person perspective of series protagonist Kinsey Millhone instead of sticking to Kinsey’s perspective as Grafton did with most of the books in the series. But Grafton had lots of writing practice by then. She also started the book by using third person point of view to set up that expectation before she moved to Kinsey’s usual first person viewpoint instead of springing that character’s angle on the story suddenly and without warning later on.

Andy Weir used the device of Mark Watney’s log to alternate smoothly between first person and third person sections of The Martian. Throughout Mischief in March, the third novel in my Calendar Mystery series, I have Minty Wilcox write in the journal that she calls A. M. Wilcox’s Investigation into All Things Daniel Price and thus she moves back and forth between first person and third.

Novel Basics: Cards 4 & 5

The cards for today are two important characters in your future novel, one opposed to the protagonist and the other allied, more or less . . .

Card # 4
The Boxing Glove

The Boxing Glove Card asks the question,
“Who will oppose the star of the story?”

Card # 4, the boxing glove, asks the question, “Who will oppose the protagonist as she attempts to reach the goal?” That is, who’s the antagonist of your novel? And why does the antagonist oppose the protagonist? In other words, who’s the bad guy or gal? And why?
(Actually, it’s more fun for you and your eventual reader if the antagonist has some redeeming virtues or at least is interesting.)
You can call him the villain if you like although your antagonist might have a perfectly logical reason for his despicable actions, or at least they make sense to him. For example, in January Jinx, the first novel in my Calendar Mystery series, the ignorant, so-called sheriff of Campbell, Kansas, messes with the protagonist’s goal of finding a job because he thinks he can extort a bunch of money from her.
It’s not uncommon for a novice novelist to let the antagonist drive the plot car from the start and just keep on doing that until the plot car runs right off the road. The protagonist and the antagonist should be worthy of each other. And often the antagonist seems to be winning at the start of the novel. But sooner or later she probably should get her come-uppance.
Personally, I don’t read lots of horror fiction, but I have read Stephen King’s Misery. It has a superb yet terrifying antagonist, Annie Wilkes, who proclaims herself to be novelist Paul Sheldon’s “number one fan.” She is a really scary woman, that’s for sure, and she does many bad things to the author, including forcing him to write another sappy novel in his sappy series. But eventually Paul wins out though he’s left physically and mentally scarred.
Note: The antagonist doesn’t have to be human. It can be a force of nature like the ocean in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

Card # 5
The Ear

The Ear Card asks the question,
“Who helps the star?”

This is one of my favorites. Your protagonist needs an ally, that is, someone to talk to, aka a confidant–for a very practical reason. What’s that? you ask. Answer: so you can have dialogue. Fiction needs dialogue, that is, people talking, for it to come alive and jump up off the page. Also, with dialogue comes the ability to have conflict, the essence of what fiction is about.
I once had a student who didn’t like to write dialogue, so she arranged for the protagonist of her science fiction novel not to understand a word of what other characters, members of an alien race, said. Gosh, that novel was dead in the water, and after a while I refused to read any more of it.
But I’ve gotten way ahead of myself. Suffice it to say you need to give the star of your novel someone to help him or her. At the very least, the ally can help the protagonist achieve the goals of the book by listening to the main character, that is, by serving as the protagonist’s confidant.
You can have lots of fun with the ally since there are so many possibilities for this character besides providing someone to talk to. The ally can serve as the foil to the protagonist, for instance, the lippy girlfriend who’s temperamentally very different from the serious female protagonist. The ally can be the comic relief sidekick. You can even let the ally oppose the protagonist sometimes by putting her down or by expressing doubts about his ability to make a million bucks.
Think about how interesting The Silence of the Lambs became when Thomas Harris made the loathsome cannibal Hannibal Lecter Clarice Starling’s ally by giving her information that ultimately helped her find the killer.

P. S. If you want a faster pace, you can order your eBook version of Novel Basics for only $2.99 at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B07K2LXFRP

Novel Basics: Cards 2 & 3

Card # 2: the Outcome Card

The Outcome Card asks the question,

“Does (s)he succeed?” 

In answering the question on the second card, “Does she or he succeed?” you will figure out if the who gets what she wants or needs. Or more formally, does the protagonist accomplish his goal by the end of the novel?

Let me explain through an analogy. Writing a novel is a trip, and it won’t be a short one like bopping over to the closest QuikTrip to gas up the truck–unless of course the floodwaters are approaching and your protagonist named George must get enough gas not only for the truck but also for the generator back at the house so he doesn’t lose all the frozen food in the freezer during the inevitable power outage. And that way, his family of five including newborn twins . . . Oh, I do so love to write fiction, but let’s press on.

Writing a novel is a long and maybe even an emotionally arduous and physically challenging journey. So it’s good to know where you’re headed when you start out, so you don’t get lost along the way and end up making lots of little side trips that take you nowhere.

To use another analogy entirely . . . Writing a novel is like walking on a tightrope. It really helps if you have the far side of the narrative tethered to something before you start out, if not to a specific rock or tree over there, at least in the general neighborhood of where you want to be at the end.

Besides these reservations, knowing where you’re going lets you know what kind of journey you’ll make and allows you to plan the journey.

We’ll go into those issues later, but now, you should write yes or no on the back of your 3” by 5” card.

Let’s go back to the “girl wants boy” and “boy wants girl” examples we talked about for the heart card.

Yes, of course, Cinderella gets Prince Charming.

I’ve decided to speed things up a little so here’s another card today.

Card # 3: the Star Card

The Star Card asks the question,

“Who drives the plot car?”

On Card # 3, you’ll jot down a few details about who will star in your novel, that is, the kind of person in the leading role. I put the star inside a car because it’s very important that your main character, aka your protagonist, generally drives the plot of your novel and makes its actions happen, especially as he or she nears the end of the journey.

You might not know this character’s name yet, but probably you can already make some basic decisions about this character. Will your protagonist be male or female? How old is your protagonist?

Another thing you might want to explore on your third card–at least a little bit at this point–is why your protagonist wants to accomplish the particular goal that you’ve given that character. To save a life? His own or someone else’s? To prove herself? To clear his name, or her sister’s or his brother’s? To solve the crime and thus keep the murderer from killing more people? Why does Gatsby want Daisy? That question is so easy to answer. The poor guy loves her.

Another thing to think about even at this early stage of brainstorming your novel: what about the star of the novel keeps her from accomplishing her goal and your novel from reaching its outcome right away? He can’t be perfect. None of us are. Besides, perfection is boring. Even Superman has his Kryptonite. Something internal like self-doubt might hold your protagonist back or something external like a broken leg when she’s out in a blizzard.

Tip: avoid putting a complete schmuck in the driver’s seat of your plot car. It makes most readers uncomfortable to be forced to identify with someone capable of the worst villainy without any redeeming virtues at all, an all-powerful being who, for example, wants to wipe every person of color off the planet or destroy the galaxy or remove one person in every two from the galaxy for his own peace and quiet. On the other hand this sort of character will work very well as the . . .

 

Novel Basics Online

The online version of my Novel Basics class starts here and on Facebook tomorrow, March 27, 2020.  Here’s an introduction.

 

Novel Basics Online Class
How to Brainstorm a Novel with 20 Index Cards

I know you’re out there. I’ve met you in some way or another.

Maybe you’re the less than confident young woman in an online group I belong to who wants to start your coming-of-age novel about growing up in the Ozarks amid the opioid crisis, but you don’t quite know how to do that.

You could be a short story writer intimidated by the sheer size of a novel.

Or maybe you’re the man I talked to at a local authors fair who always meant to get back to that novel you started twenty years ago, but now it sits hidden in a drawer at home.

Perhaps you tried to write a 50,000-word novel during a National Novel Writing Month event, but you didn’t make it all the way through.

Or you did finish and now you have the diploma declaring you a NaNoWriMo winner, but you don’t know what to do next.

Let’s say that you’re the author of a brilliant, well-received first novel who can’t get that sophomore effort together.

You could be a best-selling author on a tight schedule who needs to get cracking on the next book in your series.

Or you’re the author of a best-selling series for which you still have a ton of ideas, but a notion for a brand new book or series has crept into your head, and it’s so strong that it wakes you up in the middle of the night. Still, before you commit, you’d like to explore it.

Maybe you’re writing a nonfiction book about yourself growing up or a shocking event that happened in your hometown, but you’re thinking the book might be better as a novel, so you can distance yourself from the material emotionally and have more latitude with facts.

Maybe you’re like me. You have several completed novels in your file cabinet that you could never get an agent or publisher interested in, so you gave up on those projects. Possibly taking a little time to explore one of those will help you decide if it’s worthwhile for you to go back to it.

Or maybe you don’t fit into any of these slots I’ve mentioned, but still you’re like the rest of us. You’ve got an idea sparked by that powerful question “What if?” that keeps bugging you, an itch you’d like to scratch at least a little bit.

Maybe you’re not a writer. Instead, you’re an avid fiction reader who would like to learn more about the novel so you can sharpen your insights into the selections you discuss at your book club.

Regardless, I’m thinking that my method using twenty 3” by 5” index cards will help you to brainstorm your novel or study someone else’s. There’s no time like the present . . . So get your cards and join me here tomorrow or on Facebook at http://facebook.com/JulietKincaidauthor2016

If you prefer to go faster than a card a day, you can buy the Novel Basics book available in print from Amazon and as an eBook for only $2.99  at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B07K2LXFRP

A Brief History of Plot

Some of you have asked me about terminology I’ve used recently in my Tuesday #writingtips and #writetips. Or possibly you’ve wondered about my using an inverted check mark to represent plot, so today I’ll explain an excerpt from Novel Basics, my compact yet complete guide to writing a novel.

Note: my illustrations may appear a bit unfinished because one of the points I make in Novel Basics is that writers can jot down the basic  ideas they need to start a novel on twenty 3″ X 5″ index cards in about ninety minutes.

A Brief History of Plot

Way back in 4th Century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle gave the first guidelines to plot structure when he said that a tragedy needs three parts: beginning, middle, and end, later called Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3. He also stated that the beginning isn’t necessarily preceded by any significant action, the middle grows out of the beginning, and the end grows out of middle. A successful plot might contain a surprise like some sort of shift in the action or finding out a secret from the past.

This very simple statement belies all the variations, refinements, arguments and applications to assorted kinds of storytelling that have developed since that time. Those variations included that of Horace, a Roman poet, who later said that a play needed five acts. Both Aristotle and Horace were talking about stories performed on a stage with live actions. Some differences and divergences of how plots were structured came about with the novel.

One of the earliest ways extended fiction was structured was the still popular picaresque plot, so named because Miguel de Cervantes used this type of plot in Don Quixote, first published in 1606, in which the hero and his sidekick, a rascal or picaro named Sancho Panza, go on one adventure after another.

The picaresque plot tends to have a bunch of episodes loosely strung together, that is, just one darned thing after another. You might recognize it from the very popular Fifty Shades of Grey. (Honestly, I haven’t read that novel. But a friend of mine read the first few chapters and reported that the book seemed episodic to her.)

Charles Dickens structured The Pickwick Papers, first published in installments in 1836, in similar fashion though he did frame the adventures with an overall story about Pickwick’s wedding proposal to a woman who sued him for breach of promise for not following through at the end of the novel.

I’ll omit some of the other variations of plot structure and skip to Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, first published in 1979.

Field said that successful movies tend to have three parts: Act 1 that runs for about thirty minutes (about thirty script pages), Act 2 that runs sixty minutes (about sixty pages), and Act 3, that runs to no more than thirty minutes. Field also says that a successful movie has six essential scenes.

Not long after that, Robert J. Ray in The Weekend Novelist described the structure of a novel as similar to Field’s paradigm, but with more pages in each act because the novelist must put much more on the page than the screenwriter does. Suffice it to say that the plot of a novel needs several scenes, six or even as many as nine including scenes that cut up the large Act 2 into manageable parts.

Scriptwriters are often so precise about bringing in the essential scenes that you can time them. “Hey, hey, wait for it. Wait for it. Ah, here comes Plot Point 1, right on schedule at minute 29.” Novelists generally aren’t so precise about hitting the plot points, but still successful novels usually place these important scenes at fairly regular intervals.

Somerset Maugham, author of almost twenty novels, once famously said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” That hasn’t kept other writers from writing books on the subject and coming up with more rules, up to ten in one instance. My own take on this is that the novel you write tells you what it needs and wants to be as you write it, including decisions on structure. For example, although the classical template might dictate otherwise, Suzanne Collins divided The Hunger Games into three parts, all about the same length: Part I–138 pages, Part II–106 pages, Part III–130 pages.

As for myself, a writer primarily of mystery fiction, I prefer a more logical plot than the picaresque novel has, not one darned thing after another, but a tightly connected chain of events: that is, one more thing happens because of what happened before and the whole situation getting more and more complicated until things come together in a big scene in which the whole situation gets resolved.

My favorite representation of plot is the inverted check mark with the three major acts and the six major scenes overlaid on it because this diagram shows how the action and the tension of a well plotted novel build to the highest point of intensity in the book that’s resolved before its end.

Instead of thinking of plot structure as a formula, think of it as a skeleton, the bare bones on which you need to build your novel.

 

Novel Basics is available in print for $8.99 (ISBN: 9781730833991). The digital version of Novel Basics costs only $0.99 from October 9 through October 15, 2019–just in time for you to use it to prepare for NaNoWriMo 2019–at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B07K2LXFRP and £0.99 at http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07K2LXFRP

 

Tuesday Writing Tip 08/13/19

This is one of my personal favorite cards from my Novel Basics method of brainstorming a novel with 20 index cards. Tuesday #writingtip #writetip: If you have trouble choosing between first person (I alone remain to tell the tale) and third person (The only remaining survivor of the shipwreck, Ishmael . . .), TRY BOTH.

 

 

You can get your very own copy of Novel Basics in print for $8.99 from Amazon and other sources, and digital at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B07K2LXFRP